What does it mean to be accurate?

One of my major issues with modern, broadcast journalism is its normalisation of a one dimensional view of accuracy. When called out over a questionable story the retreat mostly takes place to the “facts” within the story itself. Solace is found in the precise sourcing of a story, even if that isn’t the way knowledge actually works.

Rarely are other dimensions question, such as whether the story’s very existence is misleading or lends undue credence or salience. Because that, also, is inaccurate. The five stories every day on petty crimes may be exact in recounting the details (as far as we can ever know), but is the presence of five stories an accurate portrayal of the magnitude of the problem?

Is this conflating precision with accuracy?

…precision can mask inaccuracy by giving us a false sense of certainty, either inadvertently or quite deliberately.”

This is from Naked Statistics by Charles Wheelan. I’m about halfway through and haven’t come across much that would be surprising to anyone who has done an intro statistics course. But Wheelan has an interesting way of theorising what are otherwise mundane concepts.

Consider his framing of “precision” and “accuracy” (forgive the long quote):

These words are not interchangeable. Precision reflects the exactitude with which we can express something. In a description of the length of your commute, “41.6 miles” is more precise than “about 40 miles,” which is more precise than “a long f——ing way.” If you ask me how far it is to the nearest gas station, and I tell you that it’s 1.265 miles to the east, that’s a precise answer. Here is the problem: That answer may be entirely inaccurate if the gas station happens to be in the other direction. On the other hand, if I tell you, “Drive ten minutes or so until you see a hot dog stand. The gas station will be a couple hundred yards after that on the right. If you pass the Hooters, you’ve gone too far,” my answer is less precise than “1.265 miles to the east” but significantly better because I am sending you in the direction of the gas station. Accuracy is a measure of whether a figure is broadly consistent with the truth—hence the danger of confusing precision with accuracy. If an answer is accurate, then more precision is usually better. But no amount of precision can make up for inaccuracy

Bringing this back to journalism, it highlights the fallacy in retreating to details rather than the bigger picture. If a portrayal of the world is an accurate one then precision is laudable. But you can’t sacrifice one for the other. By no means conflate one with the other.

If the audience walks away with all the details of the criminals but a misleading impression of the likelihood of their being a victim, that’s a failure. And it’s one we all eventually pay for through public policy.

This is a rabbit hole I’ve wandered down many a time when thinking about journalism and the possibility of representing truth. Whether achievable or not, truth definitely isn’t entirely in the details.

As usual my emphasis

Searching for some intelligence

We’re pretty well in to the internet age. But how much do our perceptions, selection and judgement reflect that?

Is the smartest person you know the one with the deepest personal repository of knowledge? Or the one with the widest knowledge, armed with the tools and skills to find out anything?

Are there many pub trivia nights that arm patrons with the web to hunt down obscure clues or answers?

I’ve been thinking of this as I get stuck into my latest coding textbook, the Python Data Science Handbook. Early on author Jake VanderPlas writes:

When a technologically minded person is asked to help a friend, family member, or colleague with a computer problem, most of the time it’s less a matter of knowing the answer as much as knowing how to quickly find an unknown answer. In data science it’s the same: searchable web resources such as online documentation, mailing-list threads, and Stack Overflow answers contain a wealth of information, even (especially?) if it is a topic you’ve found yourself searching before. Being an effective practitioner of data science is less about memorizing the tool or command you should use for every possible situation, and more about learning to effectively find the information you don’t know, whether through a web search engine or another means.

Surely this goes for most things. Knowledge itself isn’t redundant, obviously. It’s experience, information and skills that inform how and where you search, and what for.

But, at the same time, it feels like we’re still living with an outdated perception of intelligence. Intelligence as a kind of isolated store of information that can’t be updated or augmented mid-problem.

I’m waiting to see a job ad that’s looking for a candidate that isn’t just qualified, but has skills to locate, store and retrieve appropriate information. Better yet, emphasises that.

As usual my emphasis

Pumping out the noise

Increasingly, staying informed is a struggle to separate the signal from the noise. The declining cost and returns from content have led much traditional media to resort to pumping stuff out. Rather than the good ideas beating the bad ones in a marketplace of ideas, it’s more islands of quality surrounded by oceans of dross.

An interesting observation early on in This Is Not Propaganda is how bad actors have leveraged this same phenomena, deliberately, as a form of censorship. We’re used to thinking of censorship as the removal, absence of blacking-out of information, but drowning it out is just as effective.

“More information was supposed to mean more freedom to stand up to the powerful, but it’s also given them new ways to crush and silence dissent. More information was supposed to mean a more informed debate, but we seem less capable of deliberation than ever. More information was supposed to mean mutual understanding across borders, but it has also made possible new and more subtle forms of conflict and subversion. We live in a world of mass persuasion run amok…”

As Donald Trump shows constantly, this is something for which we are wholly unprepared. Our information environment is built on filters and assumptions of good faith that no longer exist or are now undercapitalised.

Shamelessness, trolling and coordinated disinformation campaigns usurp our models.

Just this week the Australian press has launched a campaign against excessive national security legislative by blacking out their front pages. But are we so focused on a loss of access, a lack of information, that we’re missing the inverse?

“When the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was murdered in February 2015, for instance, assassinated with a Makarov pistol on a bridge right underneath the towers and onion domes of Red Square, the farm’s middle management suddenly started running into every office, giving the trolls direct instructions on what to post under which articles printed in mainstream Russian publications. The farm was working in rhythm with the whole government disinformation complex. No one had time to read the articles, but they knew exactly what to post. The trolls were told to spread confusion about who was behind the murder: was it the Ukrainians, the Chechens, the Americans? The IRA, an agency whose connection to the Kremlin was purposefully blurred, was in turn purposefully blurring the Kremlin’s connection to a murder.”

As always my emphasis

Are there fundamental limits?

Looking through history, especially the history of thought, you often come across pronouncements of profound limitations. Only for a paradigm shift to leave these notions in the dust.

The “Malthusian Trap” may be the best example of this. It shows how easy it is to get caught in modern paradigms, extrapolating only from what is currently possible or emphasised.

But are these limits always transitory, or can they actually be more fundamental?

I’ve been wondering this after a recent interview where Vaclav Smil posits that we are on the cusp of the limits of energy efficiency:

If you look at the fundamentals of human existence, the yield of crops, the energy which we save by making materials, the energy we save by making better converters, no matter if it’s turbines, or cars, all these things which run our economy are basically improving at a rate of one, or two, or at best about 3 percent a year…

It’s actually becoming more and more difficult to wring out even those 3 percent, because there are many things here. We are approaching thermodynamic or straight pneumatic limits with many of these things. This idea of dematerialization, decreasing the energy intensity — fine, you can keep doing it, but you cannot do it forever. If I built a house, I can make it lighter, but I will still need some steel, some lumber, some tiles, some glass. I cannot make it not using material. This is another kind of false god — dematerialization and decrease of energy efficiency. Energy efficiency is helpful, it’s happening all the time, but it has its own thermodynamic and material limits.

Can we simply innovate our way past continued consumption growth and trust compounding efficiency to make up the difference? Or are we up against something more fundamental?

(My emphasis)

Where is the power in a suit?

It’s hard to separate suits from a profound sense of obligation.

I’ve always lived in places for which they are thoroughly, climatically, ill-suited. Yet they are still donned on the regular. As a signal that something is being taken seriously. Or that wearers take themselves seriously.

There’s a separation there, which has historical roots. But makes less and less sense with mass production and the shift of power away from the West.

The expectation-filling that guides (forces?) people to wear suits to work, weddings , court and interviews also seems thoroughly at odds with the notion of it as a symbol of power.

I’ve never seen this articulated as powerfully as in this Vox piece on the decline of suits:

Although the suit is historically associated with projecting elegance, authority, and mastery of a profession, those qualities hearken back to the days when suits were prevalent, worn by the Atticus Finches and Don Drapers of the world. How long until we realize the suit — while still used for special occasions and by a shrinking number of traditionalists — has become associated with the opposite? The suit has become a uniform for the powerless….

….When you’re in control, at least in relative control, from the C-suite down to the long rectangular table in the open-air office, you wear whatever you want, which is almost never a suit. It is the vest or bomber jacket for men , a blouse or a shell top for women…

There is a class element here – which the piece goes into. After all, the decline of the suit as de facto serious person attire is largely taking place in a handful of industries, countries and social strata.

And, just as with school uniforms, there may be something to say for suits as something of a leveller. As a well-beaten path into “respectability“.

However, as suits become less normalised, and more explicitly worn for unpleasant occasions like court, will the association become more sour? Will the power of suits leech even more?